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Society must work to educate about consent

February 29, 2016

Planned Parenthood community outreach educator Stephanie DiPonio has dedicated her career to sexual education and battling to prevent assaults like that of the local 18-year-old victim. In her goal of spreading awareness, DiPonio said consent should be one of the main focuses of education.

“Talking about consent will prevent sexual assault. It’s primary prevention,” she said. “If we had more of a culture of asking, not just that, but a culture of being OK when people say no, it could help set up boundaries. It can help with communication in general.”

DiPonio sees a lack of consent even in non-sexual situations. “In general, our society isn’t very consensual just about touching people or even just being like ‘hey can I use your pen,’” she said.
Practicing consent all the time in everyday situations, such as asking before hugging a friend, is one way she thinks could normalize the discussion. “I know it sounds corny, but just practice,” she said.
Sexual consent is not a required topic for sexual education, and is rarely covered. “Even when it’s not just abstinence only, sex ed can be just the bare bones. Just birth control and STI information,” DiPonio said. “I feel like with consent, since it’s about communication for young people, that makes people uncomfortable. Like ‘oh God, we’re teaching people to communicate during sex’ instead of the mentality that it could give them the tools and for it to be healthy and positive.”

To ease some of the discomfort, DiPonio suggests using media as a segway for parents and teachers to discuss sexual consent with their kids. “Any time it’s talked about on a song or show, say like, hey parent or child, let’s watch this. That could be a jumping off point to talk about it.”
Because of the nerve wracking nature of the topic, she also suggests using phone calls or text to discuss consent and sexual health.

While much of the recent focus on sexual assault is centered around college campuses, DiPonio said more energy needs to be placed on high schools and middle schools. “Sexaul assault is happening at all ages,” she said. “It affects young people a lot, but people like to brush it under the rug.”
This lack of concern can be detrimental to students’ well being. “When you experience trauma, you can’t be at full capacity. If it happened at school or someone you know at the school did it, feeling safe when you’re trying to learn, that’s huge,” she said. “Or, if it hasn’t happened to you, being scared it can, that’s real.”

Speaking up is DiPonio’s biggest piece of advice to those who want to improve the environment for assault survivors. “When people are saying microaggressions about sexual assault or rape culture in general, like saying ‘oh that exam raped me,’ call them out,” she said. “It may seem small, but for a survivor, some off hand comment like that could be extremely triggering.”

This, she said, can help bring awareness to the severity of the issue. “It’s sad, devastating, overwhelming how much it’s happening,” DiPionio said.

Along with publicly speaking out against consent, DiPonio said directly asking the victim how we can help is essential. “Maybe they don’t wanna talk about it, maybe they wanna sit down and share their story,” she said. “Believe them, 100 percent.”

Her advice to survivors is simple: “Just do your best to take care of yourself, whatever that looks like,” she said. “Everyone’s healing process is different.”

Attorney and senior investigator at the Michigan State University Office of Institutional Equity Debra Rousseau Martinez has seen firsthand how difficult the healing process can be. After spending 11 years at the Ingham County Prosecutor’s office working with child abuse cases and sex crimes, she was asked to join MSU last fall when the institutional equity office was created. “It’s a fancy way of saying office of fairness,” she said. “The process (of assault claims) is fair and if someone is victimized, they know they have a place they can go for extra participation at our office.”

Rousseau Martinez’s passion for the legal process is what keeps her going, despite the daunting nature of the work. “I used to tell police officers when they’d say this is a ‘he said she said,’ then you haven’t done your job. There is always something out there,” she said.

For young people, she said evidence can often be found in messages. “You send text and Facebook messages,” Rousseau Martinez said. “There are things that people send after assaults that are very valuable to us.”

For rape cases like the Lansing area student’s, prosecution can be difficult. “A lot of cases don’t get prosecuted because of that high standard of beyond a reasonable doubt,” Rousseau Martinez said.

When alcohol is involved, people may have impaired memories or blackouts and, without details, this can make prosecutors hesitant to take on a case. Rousseau Martinez said the difference of blacked out and passed out is confusing.

“Some people can be blacked out but walking, talking, functioning,” she said. “It’s not against the law to have sex with a drunk person. It’s against the law to have sex with someone who is passed out from being drunk.”

At MSU, there is a stricter standard. Sex with someone who is clearly intoxicated could be a violation of student policy and lead to an investigation, possibly resulting in consequences for the assaulter.

“Under the law to be held responsible for sexual assault, it has to be beyond a reasonable doubt. At MSU it’s preponderance of the evidence,” Rousseau Martinez said. “That means more likely than not. There’s a little bit more on one side than the other.”

From her experience, Rousseau Martinez said the best step a victim can take is to tell someone after the assault. “Even if you aren’t comfortable going to the police, or going to the university, tell someone. A friend, counselor, someone. When it happens, you may feel like it’s something that can’t be pursued now, but your mindset and feelings might change down the road. If you talk to someone, it’s kind of preserved.” she said. “I think you’ll be in a much better place.”

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